North Dakota State, winners of eight of the last nine FCS national titles, goes on the road for a pre-Frisco playoff game for the first time since 2010. Hosting the Bison is No. 2 seed Sam Houston, who is 14-0 in FCS postseason games played at Bowers Stadium.
These two teams have met four times in the FCS playoffs. NDSU has won all four, the first two to win the 2011 and 2012 national titles, the third in the 2015 semifinals, and the fourth in the 2017 semifinals. The last time the Bison played in Huntsville was 2009, resulting in a loss.
The game begins at 2 p.m. CT Sunday and airs on ESPN.
When NDSU has the ball
The main thing that separates this version of the Bearkats compared to past teams is the improved run defense. SHSU allowed more than 200 rushing yards a game in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the Kats brought that number to 69.9. This spring, they are allowing 58.9 yards per game and 1.8 yards per carry.
We’ll find out if the defense is really a top-three unit in the FCS like that statistics say, or if the numbers just reflect the pass-happy style of offenses in the Southland Conference. Because here comes the Bison, who rushed for 422 yards last week against Eastern Washington. It will be strength on strength as NDSU is averaging 227.1 rushing yards a game, led by the bruising Hunter Luepke (6-foot-1, 245 pounds), the speedster Jalen Bussey (5-foot-5, 161 pounds), and the true freshman Dominic Gonnella.
Where SHSU has struggled is defending the pass, allowing 306.7 yards per game. That is also the weakness of the Bison’s offense. NDSU is throwing for just 127.0 yards a game and inserted true freshman Cam Miller as the starter last weekend. Miller saw action for most of the regular-season finale in a loss to South Dakota State. In the last two games, he’s gone a combined 15-of-27 for 199 yards, two TDs, and one interception.
NDSU rushed the ball 57 times against EWU and threw it 11 times, a formula the Bison will look to use again versus SHSU. The Bearkats have been physically outmatched in playoff exits during the mid-2010s. Joseph Wallace (300 pounds) and Trace Mascorro (270 pounds) and are two All-Southland players on the interior of the defensive line. If the defensive line can stop the run for all four quarters, the Bearkats can reach the semifinals. The key words there are “for all four quarters.”
“They’re very active up front,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. “They have improved since the last time we played them in 2017 on the defensive line, even though they had a draft pick [P.J. Hall] back then. But I think they are improved up front. It’s going to be our area of strength against their area of strength.”
When SHSU has the ball
The Bearkats should take notes on how EWU shredded NDSU’s defense early in last week’s game, getting to 20 points in the second quarter. But NDSU locked down after that and didn’t allow a point. SHSU has just as many weapons offensively as the Eagles with a top quarterback in the FCS. Eric Schmid has thrown for 2,154 yards, 15 TDs, and seven interceptions in seven games this spring. And with a 4.4 40-yard dash time, he can tuck it and run with 291 yards on the ground and another five scores.
The Bison are young at cornerback after Josh Hayes entered the transfer portal midseason and has since signed with Virginia. Jequez Ezzard is a big-play threat with 614 receiving yards and six TDs off of just 21 receptions. Ramon Jefferson balances the offense with 570 yards and five TDs on the ground. Jefferson was a freshman All-American back in 2018 as a key part of Maine’s semifinal run.
“We built this team offensively and defensively to play James Madison, to play North Dakota State,” SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler said. “If you watch us now, we’re not that up-tempo, play a million miles an hour offense anymore. There’s a reason why. We felt that was great if you’re just worried about how many points you can score, then let’s do that. But when you get in those games where playing fast doesn’t affect them … you have to build yourself a little differently … We’re built to try to match up against what we see in North Dakota State. That will be the real interesting part to see how good of a job we did.”
If the Bearkats can spread the NDSU defense out and scheme some designed QB runs for Schmid, they can find success. Not only has SHSU’s defensive line not held up well in the previous two matchups against NDSU, but the offensive line was also overwhelmed. What you don’t want is NDSU getting home with four rushers and seven sitting back in coverage. If Schmid can present the type of running threat to the Bison like a Bryan Schor or Taryn Christion, SHSU can extend drives and keep the defense on its heels.
While the Bearkats will look to hit on explosive plays, they also don’t want quick three-and-outs. That could turn into eight-minute NDSU drives as the holes for the Bison rushing attack get bigger as the game wears on.
QB Cam Miller — NDSU will try and rush the ball 60 times Sunday. But if SHSU’s run defense proves to be stout, Miller and the passing game will need to attack a secondary that allows 306.7 passing yards per game.
RB Hunter Luepke — While the Bison have a three-headed rushing attack, the 245-pound Luepke will get fed.
CB Courtney Eubanks — The true freshman has seen an increased role since Josh Hayes’ transfer. The young Bison secondary will be tested by a talented group of WRs.
DT Joseph Wallace — Stopping NDSU’s rushing attack starts up front. At 300 pounds, Wallace needs to plug the middle, or else NDSU will run A-gap power as many times in a row as it wants to.
DT Trace Mascorro — Mascorro needs to be disruptive and get into the backfield.
QB Eric Schmid — The windows Schmid throws into against Southland defenses aren’t windows you want to test against an MVFC or CAA defense. He’ll need to limit turnovers but connect on big-play throws and utilize his running ability.